[Image: “Two images of the same room, one reconstructed from video footage of a bag of chips within the room (top) and the other photographed directly (bottom),” as described by Scientific American. Images courtesy Jeong Joon Park.]
“Researchers have now found that by filming a brief video clip of a shiny item, they can use the light flashing off it to construct a rough picture of the room around it,” Scientific American reports. “The results are surprisingly accurate, whether the reflections come from a bowl, a cylinder or a crinkly bag of potato chips.”
It comes down to mathematically modeling “what a known object will look like—how light will reflect off it—when it is placed in new surroundings,” such that you can then reconstruct the proper orientation of what it reflects.
There’s a lot more in the original article, but what immediately struck me about this was how this technology could be used for crime or espionage, both.
You send an unsuspecting group of school kids into a target building, carrying highly reflective silver balloons, or you wear a slyly reflective and precisely designed item of clothing into a business meeting: in both cases, a photographer on a roof across the street or hidden in a park nearby snaps away through a telephoto lens. The reflections spilling off in all directions are like a 360º spherical photograph of the building interior—the art on the walls, the position of furniture. The location of a safe.
[Image: “Las Meninas” (1656) by Diego Velázquez; if my reference to this painting makes absolutely no sense in the present context, it’s because I’m being pretentious and indirectly referring to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, where he discusses the painting’s use of internal reflection.]
Of course, you may also recall that sounds can be reconstructed from the vibrations of distant objects: “Researchers at MIT, Microsoft, and Adobe have developed an algorithm that can reconstruct an audio signal by analyzing minute vibrations of objects depicted in video. In one set of experiments, they were able to recover intelligible speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag photographed from 15 feet away through soundproof glass… In other experiments, they extracted useful audio signals from videos of aluminum foil, the surface of a glass of water, and even the leaves of a potted plant.”
It’s worth noting here how potato chip bags pop up in each example. Ocean’s 14 will open with a surreptitious potato chip delivery…
In any case, political dissidents, high-value corporate CEOs, and adversarial diplomatic attachés will never be safe again. Just a brief reflection from a cigarette lighter or a piece of silverware, just a tiny ripple of sound across the leaves of an exotic orchid in the center of a dinner table, and someone across the city with a telescope has your bank passcode, the location of your home safe, and a complete 3D map of your building interior, even down to where your security guards are sitting.
You might have seen the news that a crew of burglars used sewer tunnels beneath the diamond district in Antwerp, Belgium, to break into a nearby bank vault.
“Detectives in Antwerp are searching for clues in a sewage pipe under the Belgian city’s diamond quarter after burglars apparently crawled through it to break into a bank holding safe deposit boxes full of jewels,” the Guardian reported.
The heist allegedly began across the street, in a separate building, where they dug into the sewer network; one of the city’s many subterranean pipes led close enough to the bank that the crew could then tunnel just a few more meters to make entrance.
A couple of details stand out. For example, the police apparently had to hang back long enough to take gas measurements above the newly opened sewer tunnel, fearing either that the air quality would be so bad that they could risk asphyxiation or that the sewer emanations themselves might be explosive.
Either way, this suggests a possible strategic move by future burglars, who night now know that police—or, at the very least, police not equipped with gas masks—will be delayed due to chemical concerns. Infrastructural off-gassing could become a kind of criminal camouflage.
The other detail is simply that, when the police began investigating the crime, “The first the residents of the central Antwerp district knew of the incident was when police raised all the manhole covers running down the centre of Nerviërsstraat,” the Guardian reported. This otherwise inexplicable sight—law enforcement officers suddenly raising the lid on the city’s underworld—was actually part of a forensic investigation.
I’ve already written at length about tunnel jobs used in bank heists—including a still-unsolved crime from Los Angeles, back in the 1980s—in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, so I will defer to that book in terms of addressing specific aspects of underground crime. In fact, I would perhaps even more specifically recommend the book Flawless by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell, about another, massive heist in Antwerp’s diamond district pulled off in 2003.
[Images: Sewer maps and diagrams are now freely available online; the ones seen here are from Los Angeles and detail the same neighborhood in which a 1986 bank heist occurred, where the bandits tunneled into a vault using the city’s stormwater network. Read more in A Burglar’s Guide to the City or in retired FBI agent Bill Rehder’s absurdly enjoyable memoir, Where The Money Is].
Instead, what seems worth commenting on here is simply the very nature of urban infrastructure and the ease with which it can be repurposed for designing, planning, and committing crimes. The city itself can be an accomplice in acts entirely unrelated to the infrastructure in question. A freeway route enables a bank-heist getaway, a sewer tunnel offers jewel thieves a subterranean method of entry, a specific intersection’s geometric complexity means that carjackings are more likely to occur there: the city is filled with silent accomplices to future criminal activity, activities and events unforeseen by most city planners.
Will this intersection lead to more carjackings? is unlikely to be high on the list of questions posed by community feedback, yet it’s exactly that sort of tactical thinking that might allow designers to stay one step ahead of the criminals who seek to abuse those same designers’ finished projects.
Last summer, I got obsessed with the idea of how future crimes will be investigated on Mars. If we accept the premise that humans will one day settle the Red Planet, then, it seems to me, we should be prepared to see the same old vices pop up all over again, from kidnapping and burglary to serial murder, even bank heists.
If there is a mining depot on Mars, in other words, then there will be someone plotting to rob it.
But who will have the jurisdictional power to investigate these crimes? What sorts of forensic tools will offworld police use to analyze Martian crime scenes contaminated by relentless solar exposure, where the planet’s low gravity will make blood spatter differently from stab wounds? Further, if there is a future Martian crime wave, what sort of prison architecture would be appropriate—if any—for detaining perpetrators on another world?
Over the long and often surreal process of researching these sorts of questions, I spoke with legendary sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, with Arctic archaeologist Christyann Darwent, with space law expert Elsbeth Magilton, with astrobiologist and political activist Lucianne Walkowicz, with political theorists Charles Cockell and Philip Steinberg, and with UCLA astrophysicist David Paige. All of them, through their own particular fields of expertise, helped chip away at various aspects of the question of what non-terrestrial law enforcement.
Incredibly, I also met a 4th-degree black belt in Aikido named Josh Gold who has been working with a team of advisors to develop a new martial art for space, rethinking the basics of human movement for a world with low—or even, on a space station, no—gravity. How do you pin someone to the ground, for example, when is no ground to pin them on?
In any case, will we need a Mars P.D.? If so, what exactly might a Martian police department look like?
2. Amazon wants to put robots in every home. “The retail and cloud computing giant has embarked on an ambitious, top-secret plan to build a domestic robot, according to people familiar with the plans. Codenamed ‘Vesta,’ after the Roman goddess of the hearth, home and family,” the robot “could be a sort of mobile Alexa,” Businessweek speculates, “accompanying customers in parts of their home where they don’t have Echo devices. Prototypes of the robots have advanced cameras and computer vision software and can navigate through homes like a self-driving car.”
3. A woman in Austin, Texas, went missing in 2015. Without monthly payments, her house was eventually seized and sold by the bank—but the home’s new owners found the skeletal remains of a body inside one of the walls back in March. It was the missing woman. “In the attic, there was a broken board that led down to the space” where the skeleton was found, a coroner’s spokesperson explained. “Law enforcement thinks she may have been up in the attic and fell through the attic floor.” Horrifically, whether she was killed by the fall or remained alive, trapped inside the wall, is unclear.
4. At an event here in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, artist and writer Julia Christensen drew my attention to officially recognized “former constellations,” or named star groups that are no longer considered referentially viable.
5. The Roman monetary system left a planetary-archaeological trace in Greenland’s ice sheet, according to Rob Meyer of The Atlantic. “A team of archaeologists, historians, and climate scientists have constructed a history of Rome’s lead pollution,” Meyer explains, “which allows them to approximate Mediterranean economic activity from 1,100 b.c. to 800 a.d. They found it hiding thousands of miles from the Roman Forum: deep in the Greenland Ice Sheet, the enormous, miles-thick plate of ice that entombs the North Atlantic island.” With this data, they have “reconstructed year-by-year economic data documenting the rise and fall of the Roman Republic and Empire.” Oddly enough, this means the Greenland Ice Sheet is a landscape-scale archive of Roman financial data.
6. Speaking of economic data mined from indirect sources, “satellite imagery that tracks changes in the level of nighttime lighting within and between countries over time” might also reveal whether countries are lying about the strengths of their economies. According to researcher Luis R. Martinez, “increases in nighttime lighting generally track with increases in GDP,” and this becomes of interest when lighting levels don’t correspond with officially given numbers. Of course, this is not the first time that satellite imagery has been used to estimate economic data.
7. “Today our experience of the night differs significantly from that of our ancestors,” Nancy Gonlin and April Nowell write for Sapiens. “Before they mastered fire, early humans lived roughly half their lives in the dark.” Cue the rise of “archaeological inquiries into the night,” or what Gonlin and Nowell have evocatively named the “archaeology of night.”
8. There was an amazing article by Jake Halpern published in The New Yorker two years ago about Nazi gold fever in Poland and the incredible amount of amateur detective operations there dedicated to finding an alleged buried fortune. It’s a wild mix of abandoned WWII bunkers, secret underground cities in the forest, and urban legends of untold wealth. It turns out, however, there is a (vaguely) similar obsession with lost or buried gold in northwestern Pennsylvania: “For decades, treasure hunters in Pennsylvania have suspected that there is a trove of Civil War gold lost in a rural forest in the northwestern part of the state,” the New York Times reports. “The story of the gold bars was pieced together from old documents, a map and even a mysterious note found decades ago in a hiding place on the back of a bed post in Caledonia,” the paper explains.
9. People are drawn to forests for all sorts of reasons. As Alex Mar wrote last autumn for the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Slender Man phenomenon—that inspired two young girls to try to murder a classmate—also had a forest element. “Girls lured out into the dark woods—this is the stuff of folk tales from so many countries,” Mar writes, “a New World fear of the Puritans, an image at the heart of witchcraft and the occult, timeless.” Mar points out that, after the attempted murder, the two girls began heading “to Wisconsin’s Nicolet National Forest on foot, nearly 200 miles north. They were convinced that, once there, if they pushed farther and farther into the nearly 700,000-acre forest, they would find the mansion in which their monster [Slender Man] dwells and he would welcome them.” The whole article is an interesting look at childhood, folklore, and the sometimes dark allure of the wild.
10. More treasure hunts: is there a cache of buried armaments, stolen from a National Guard armory in 1970, hidden somewhere in Amesbury, Massachusetts? According to a commenter on the Cast Boolits forum, William Gilday, who once “led an assault on a National Guard armory in Newburyport” and who spent nearly half of his life in prison for killing a police officer, confessed on his death bed that he buried guns and ammunition stolen from the armory somewhere in his hometown of Amesbury. “It’s one of those ‘what if’ things,” the commenter continues. “I’ve known about the confession for years, and I walk my dog in the ‘suspected’ vicinity just about every day. The problem is that the ‘authorities’ claim that everything that was stolen was recovered. But, a few weeks ago, I emailed a local radio talk show host who was involved in the death bed confession and I asked her if she thought that stolen items really had been buried in my town and she replied, ‘Yes…do you know where they are?’”
11. “A dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has disrupted the electric power grid for most of the Continent, making certain kinds of clocks—many of those on ovens, in heating systems and on radios—run up to six minutes slow,” the New York Times reported back in March. “The fluctuation in the power supply is infinitesimally small—not nearly enough to make a meaningful difference for most powered devices—and if it were a brief disturbance, the effect on clocks might be too little to worry about.” But this six-minute lag is enough to cause subtle effects in people’s lives. A bad first novel could be written about slow clocks, distant political disputes, and some sort of disastrous event—a missed train, a skipped meeting—in the narrator’s personal life.
12. The above story reminds me of the suspicion last year that Russia was using some sort of large-scale GPS jamming device in the Black Sea. “Reports of satellite navigation problems in the Black Sea suggest that Russia may be testing a new system for spoofing GPS,” David Hambling reported for New Scientist. “This could be the first hint of a new form of electronic warfare available to everyone from rogue nation states to petty criminals.” The reason I say this is because you can easily imagine a scenario where someone is driving around, totally lost, receiving contradictory if not frankly nonsensical navigation instructions, and it’s because they are an unwitting, long-distance victim of geographic weaponry being used in a war zone far away.
For a piece published by The New Yorker back in October, writer Joshua Yaffa looked back at the history of his Moscow apartment complex, “a vast building across the river from the Kremlin, known as the House on the Embankment. In 1931, when tenants began to move in, it was the largest residential complex in Europe, a self-contained world the size of several city blocks.”
Among many other such stories and details, one stood out: the interior of the building, Yaffa learned, was allegedly used against the people who lived in it. He explains that, “throughout 1937 and 1938 the House of Government was a vortex of disappearances, arrests, and deaths. Arrest lists were prepared by the N.K.V.D., the Soviet secret police, which later became the K.G.B., and were approved by Stalin and his close associates. Arrests occurred in the middle of the night.”
However, it’s how the police were rumored to access individual apartments that caught my eye: “A story I have heard many times,” Yaffa continues, “but which seems apocryphal, is that N.K.V.D. agents would sometimes use the garbage chutes that ran like large tubes through many apartments, popping out inside a suspect’s home without having to knock on the door.”
This vision of vermicular control from within—of agents of the state sliding around within our walls and utility ducts like animals—is both unsettling and Kafkaesque, a nightmare and the setup for a surreal tragicomedy.
An undercover cop stuck in the walls between floors four and five for nearly three weeks is fed homemade soup by a young boy who takes pity on him, this unknown man caught in the fabric of the building and abandoned there by his superior officers out of embarrassment.
Gradually, the boy and this agent of the state strike up something like a friendship, sharing their hopes for the future, complaining about perceived limitations in life, confiding in one another about random things they’re both inspired to recall, and looking forward to future adventures—until, finally, one day after a shower leak raining down from a luxury apartment somewhere much further above, the man is able to slip free.
He slides into the boy’s room feet-first, covered in wood shavings and dust—where he promptly follows through on his initial mission and arrests the boy’s entire family.
When Cognitive Systems, the Canadian tech firm behind Aura, began discussing the project publicly back in 2015, they suggested that WiFi is basically an invisible shape inside your home, and that “distortions” or deformations in that shape can be detected and responded to. There is your home’s interior; then there is the electromagnetic geometry of WiFi that fills your home’s interior.
Although the alarm is capable of differentiating between an adult human being and, say, a loose piece of paper blowing down a hallway or a house plant swinging in the evening breeze, the system can apparently be thrown off by complicated architectural layouts. Perhaps, then, in the techno-supernatural future, particular homes will find themselves unavoidably haunted by nonexistent burglars, as alarms are unable to stop ringing due to an unusual arrangement of halls and closets. A new Gothic of electromagnetic effects, where the alarm is detecting the house itself.
Of course, if devices like the Aura take off, it will almost undoubtedly lead to crafty burglars developing WiFi-shape-spoofing tools as ways to camouflage their entry into, and movement through, other people’s homes. A black market economy of signal-reflection and WiFi-dazzling clothing takes off, allowing humans to move like stealth airplanes through complex electromagnetic environments, undetected. The opposite of this, perhaps.
Stories of one thing unexpectedly being used to detect the presence of another have always fascinated me. In this case, it’s just WiFi being used to pick up potential criminal trespass, but, in other examples, we’ve seen GPS satellites being repurposed as a giant dark matter detector in space. As if vast clouds of invisible matter, through which the Earth is “constantly crashing,” might set off some sort of planetary-scale burglar alarm.
Imagine scrambling all this; you wake up tomorrow morning to find that WiFi burglar alarms are detecting dark matter walls in space, telephone calls are picking up signs of unknown rooms and corridors hidden in the buildings all around you, and scientists outside studying wolves in the American wild have found evidence of celestial phenomena in the creatures’ tracking collars.
In fact, I’m tangentially reminded of the internet subgenre of what could be called things inadvertently captured on wildlife cameras—ghostly forms in the wilderness, lost children, “unexplained” lights. These are trail cameras that were placed there to track wildlife, either for science or for sport, but then these other things allegedly popped up, instead.
I suppose this often absurd, Photoshop-prone field of purportedly occult photography comes about as close as you can to a new technological folklore, devising myths of encounter as picked up by systems originally installed to look for something else.
Yet it leaves me wondering what the “spooky trail cam” genre might produce when mixed with WiFi-enabled home burglar alarms, dark matter detectors in space, etc. etc.
The drama, which landed a put pilot commitment, hails from writer Paul Grellong (“Scorpion,” “Revolution”) and exec producers Alex Kurtzman, Heather Kadin, Danielle Woodrow, and Justin Lin, who is attached to direct the pilot.
A Burglar’s Guide to the City follows a team of modern-day Robin Hoods, led by a brilliant architect with a troubled past, that uses their unique skills to gain access to any stronghold in order to steal from rich criminals and give to those that have been wronged by a corrupt system.
The potential series is based on Geoff Manaugh’s non-fiction book. Manaugh, repped by Manage-ment and Marc Van Arx, will serve as a consulting producer on the TV project. Nate Miller and Dan Halsted of Manage-ment are also producing, along with Aaron Baiers of Secret Hideout.
I can’t say more about the show at this point, other than to point out that I am absolutely, genuinely over the moon about this, but I am very much looking forward to bringing burglary and architecture to a small screen near you…
If you haven’t checked out the book, meanwhile, consider picking up a copy; many reviews and blurbs can also be found at burglarsguide.com.
For anyone near London next week, I’m looking forward to speaking with Rory Hyde, curator of contemporary architecture and urbanism at the Victoria and Albert Museum, on Monday night, September 26th. We’ll be discussing infrastructural vulnerabilities, subterranean heists, electromagnetic getaways, ubiquitous police surveillance, and many other topics found in A Burglar’s Guide to the City.
If you’re near Denver, I’m excited to be doing an event there next week with novelist Nick Arvin. Arvin, you might recall, was previously interviewed here on BLDGBLOG about his novel The Reconstructionist, including Arvin’s previous, real-life job simulating car crashes for the insurance industry.
[Image: “St. Mark’s Place, with campanile, Venice, Italy,” via the Library of Congress].
Following a number of recent events for A Burglar’s Guide to the City—discussing, among other things, the often less than clear legal lines between interiors and exteriors, between public space and private—I’ve been asked about the Jewish practice of the eruv.
An eruv, in very broad strokes, is a clearly defined space outside the walls of the private home, often marked by something as thin as a wire, inside of which observant Jews are permitted to carry certain items on Shabbat, a day on which carrying objects is otherwise normally prohibited.
As Chabad describes the eruv, “Practically, it is forbidden to carry something, such as a tallit bag or a prayer book from one’s home along the street and to a synagogue or to push a baby carriage from home to a synagogue, or to another home, on Shabbat.”
However, “It became obvious even in ancient times, that on Shabbat, as on other days, there are certain things people wish to carry. People also want to get together with their friends after synagogue and take things with them—including their babies. They want to get together to learn, to socialize and to be a community.”
While, today, “it is an obvious impracticality to build walls throughout portions of cities, crossing over or through streets and walkways, in order to place one’s home and synagogue within the same ‘private’ domain,” you can instead institute an eruv: staking out a kind of shared private space, or a public “interior,” as it were. The eruv, Chabad continues, is “a technical enclosure which surrounds both private and hitherto public domains,” and it “is usually large enough to include entire neighborhoods with homes, apartments and synagogues, making it possible to carry on Shabbat, since one is never leaving one’s domain.”
In fact, the space of the eruv can absorb truly huge amounts of an existing city, despite the fact that many people will not even know it exists, let alone that they have crossed over into it, that they are “inside” something.
So the question I’ve been posed—although I will defer to more learned colleagues for an informed and accurate answer—is: what does the eruv do to concepts of burglary, if everything taking place inside it, even if technically “outside,” is considered an interior private space? In other words, can any crime committed inside an eruv be considered an act of burglary?
Reading this with the messy help of Google Translate, the Venetian mayor has signed a law “attesting that the entire city can be considered as one large ‘house,’” or eruv, extending domesticity to the entire metropolis. This eruv will exist for five years, after which, presumably, it will be renewed.
As Sanna points out in his comment, “It must be said: Venice is the place that invented the Ghetto. And this is the 500th anniversary of that event. Venice is the first city to ever constrain Jews in one tiny portion of its urban space–another act that generated architecture, making buildings grow higher and higher to accomodate the growing Jewish population. It is significant, then, if not altogether timely, that it’s Venice that makes this symbolic move of inclusiveness for the first time.”
What effect—if any—this might have on the legal recognition of burglary remains, for me, an interesting question.